Friday, December 13, 2019

Looking Beyond the Modern: A Catholic response to the terror of Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism seems poised to rule the roost in India for the near future. How do Catholics in India deal with this crisis? In May 2018, Anil Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi, wrote a letter inviting Catholics in the Archdiocese of Delhi to begin a regime of prayer and fasting in the period leading up to the recent parliamentary elections. By upturning modernist and liberal assumptions about politics and opening up the political field from the immanent to include the transcendental, Archbishop Couto offers a way forward that includes an opportunity to correct the mistakes that Catholics have been committing for some time now.

Exposing the modern

The significance of the modern period lies in the fact that it dramatically changed how the world was perceived. Henceforth, we would think in terms of binaries: the individual and the community, the private and the public, the state and the Church, religious and secular, the immanent and the transcendental, etc. This period also saw the rise of the nation-state, which sought to contain one nation within a single state, persecuting those groups that either could not or refused to be assimilated into the national. Further, it sought to be the only authority within a definite space or territory. This was a novel desire given that earlier political arrangements had witnessed a plurality of legal authorities such that every person was subject to multiple jurisdictions. This pluralism allowed for a system of checks and balances that enabled groups to play one power against another, preventing the rise of absolute hegemonies. The modern state also desired to control both time and space. Promising utopia on earth, it was within the limited time of the immanent that it functioned best, constructing a parallel sacred realm, where the nation replaced God, offering a cult of national heroes and martyrs to parallel the saints and a national liturgy of anthem and flag.
In Europe, these ambitions ensured conflict with the Catholic Church, whose politics exceeded the bounds of hived-off nation-states. More importantly, it preached a life that extended beyond the immanent or the material. That there is a life beyond the grave allows for a range of political actions. These actions eventually undermine the modern state, as does the teaching that the cycles of unspeakable violence in modern times are the result of man assuming the terrifying powers of God to realize utopia.

Looking beyond the modern

Therefore, the horrors of contemporary Hindu nationalism are not an aberration but part of a longer continuum that begins with an apparently benign secular nationalism. In other words, Hindu nationalism has its origins in Indian nationalism, with Nehruvian secularism merely a pit stop en route to a fast-approaching destination.
Then, clearly, the solution to the current crisis cannot be found in liberalism or other modernist philosophies. Rather, the response must come from a post-liberal order which transcends modernist binaries to restore a holistic vision of the world while simultaneously encouraging greater legal pluralism.
Such a suggestion would, understandably, elicit the response that the collapse of the secular–religious binary is exactly what the Hindu right seeks. However, by its very logic, nationalism is a religion. As many scholars have highlighted, Hinduism is a modernist production from the late nineteenth century amalgamating the beliefs of dominant castes to enable the capture of state power. The modernist lenses that we have adopted simply prevent us from appreciating that the Church is already collapsed into the state.
We must also challenge modernist and secular notions that all religions are essentially the same, because the implications of the sacral order vary across ideologies. To Islam and Christianity, the body of every human being is sacred, which is not so in brahmanism, for example, where only the bodies of the brahmin and the king are considered sacred, while the rest are marked by decreasing levels of dignity.
Archbishop Couto’s letter is critical to articulating a Catholic politics that transcends modernism and liberalism because, by proffering prayers and fasting as useful strategies, it affirms a broader conception of time and space. It also explicitly affirms Christ’s agency in our politics, reminding us that our role is merely to work towards the kingdom; the establishment of utopia is His alone. Critically, this recognition prevents us from going down the road of identitarian politics, which is precisely what an immanent politics engenders and indeed what Hindutva will push us towards. More importantly, recognizing that we may not see utopia is a pragmatic necessity because things in India will likely get significantly worse before they get better. We are obliged, therefore, to articulate a politics rooted in faith that recognizes how Jesus consoles – in an Ignatian sense – those who suffer by pointing out that eternal life is about standing up for truth even in the face of terror.
In addition to transcending modernist binaries, we must also restore a distinction between the sacred and the profane, while affirming not only that the sacred can percolate into the profane but that it is important that this mundane world be sacralized by Christ and His message. Indeed, India desperately needs to appreciate the sacrality of human life. While the notion of rights does this in a limited manner, we must go beyond this formal notion of rights and highlight the Christian spirit of this law of human rights rather than remain restrained by the letter of state law. In other words, we urgently need a renewed preaching to all Indians of the social teaching of the Church instituted by Christ.

The idolatry of nationalism

As much as Archbishop Couto’s letter offers these grand Christian possibilities, it nevertheless lingers on the threshold of idolatry by making constant reference to the national. Urging the love of one’s country within the context of a belligerent nationalism that brooks no competition effectively encourages the idolatry of nationalism. It is critical, therefore, that we change our language to use the word “state” rather than “nation”. The philosopher Hannah Arendt presents the nation-state as a symbol of the conquest of the state by the nation. Through this conquest, the modern state has been perverted from an instrument of law into one of lawless discretion in the service of the nation. Indeed, we are called by Jesus to preach to “all the nations of the world”, such that in the end, there is “neither Greek nor Jew”. That is, we are to work to undo national boundaries rather than consolidate them. In these times of nationalism on steroids, it is critical that Catholics insist on the valid argument that a refusal to work for the nation does not translate to working against the state. Rather, working for the well-being of all persons is ultimately in the larger interest of the state, even if current occupants of government fail to realize this. Service to the nation-state, therefore, may well be incompatible with service to Christ.
In sum, in the face of rampant Hindu nationalism, we must rely on the recognition that we have reached the limits of modernism and that one cannot effect a cure by administering more of the poison that caused the sickness. Rather, the way forward must rely on a rejection of modernism and an insistence on the universalism preached by Christ and His Church.

(A version of this post was first published in Matters India on 13 Dec 2019.)


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